By: Rabbi Shelton J. Donnell
Following the devastating rebellion of Korach and his minions, the Israelites continued their wanderings in the wilderness coming to the empty reaches of Zin. There, they encamped at Kadesh, where Miriam died. In our tradition Miriam is associated with water. According to the midrash, because of her righteousness a well of sweet water accompanied the Israelites throughout their desert journeys. However, as soon as Miriam died, that well disappeared. Immediately following her death we read, “The people were without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses, saying, ‘If only we had perished when our brothers perished at ADONAI’S command! Why have you brought ADONAI’S congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there?” (Num. 20:3-4) Moses felt set upon, hounded by the people of whom he was a reluctant leader from the very beginning. God commanded him to take his shepherd’s staff and order a nearby rock to open up and give water. But in his pique, Moses took his stick and hit the rock that gushed cool, life-giving, refreshing water to quench the people’s thirst. He acted out of frustration instead of faith and brought upon himself God’s punishment instead of praise, ‘Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Num. 20:12). The place is called Meribah – The Waters of Contention – from then on.
Moses was the leader, strong but distant, having to make difficult decisions that often alienated him from the people. His was a lonely role. Miriam was the nurturer, the giver of life, just as she gave Moses his life when she saved him from Pharaoh’s murderous decree. She was the leader of the dance, whose timbrel shook the rhythm’s of rejoicing at the moment of triumph at the Red Sea’s crossing. Was she Moses’ opposite or his complement? Actually, she was a part of a triad of leadership that embraced Moses the austere and strong leader who made the tough decisions, Miriam the nurturer and sustainer, and included Aaron the priest who addressed the spiritual needs of the people. Symbolically, these three sibling-leaders brought the physical, emotional and spiritual together. The people needed these three capable leaders but, perhaps, they came to depend upon them too much. They looked to Moses, Aaron and Miriam to provide everything for them, physically, emotionally and spiritually, and when they faced a challenge, instead of relying upon their own resources, they blamed their leaders for their problems. Throughout their desert wanderings, every complaint was the same, “Why did you…?” It was always the leaders’ fault. The truth was, the people could never be free unless they could accept responsibility for their own fate.
Miriam died. Aaron would die in this same portion following the incident at Meribah at Mount Hor, where the people mourn for him for thirty days. With the heart (Miriam) and the soul (Aaron) gone the head (Moses) functions, but can things ever be the same? It makes sense, then that Moses is not destined to enter the Promised Land. How can he without Miriam and Aaron? The Israelites must take the final steps to freedom on their own. It is a necessary part of their liberation and maturation as a people. They need to learn to act on their own, for themselves. They must win their independence from Miriam and Aaron and, ultimately, Moses, just as they have from the Egyptians if they are going to be truly free to serve God and Torah.